Exhibition about Russian political prisoners cancelled over Israel-Gaza row

A Russian art collective which was due to open a show in London highlighting the plight of opponents of the Putin regime claim their exhibition was cancelled at the last minute because one of them was Israeli.

The Pomidor group was founded in Moscow in 2018 by the artists Polina Egorushkina and Maria Sarkisyants, but the duo was forced to relocate two years ago after the Kremlin crackdown on opposition activity. Egorushkina now lives in London and Sarkisyants in Ashkelon in southern Israel.

Their latest show, Even Elephants Hold Elections, was part of an ongoing project about free expression designed to challenge people in democratic countries to understand life in an authoritarian regime and reflect on their own experience. Pomidor’s work includes embroidered banners celebrating political prisoners which the artists display in friends’ windows and phone booths on the street.

Among these are tributes to Viktoria Petrova, imprisoned in a psychiatric unit for anti-war social media posts, Mikhail Simonov, a 63-year-old pensioner arrested for comments on other people’s social media and 13-year-old Masha Moskaleva, who was taken away from her father after drawing anti-war pictures at school.

The show was due to open on 3 July at the Metamorphika Gallery in east London. But on the evening before, the two artists were told the gallery had received messages raising concerns about “inappropriate behaviour” on social media.

This referred to two posts pinned on Maria’s Instagram account. One post from 7 October expressed her horror at the “terrible evil” and included the words, in Russian, “Israel my beloved, we are here, we are here to support each other, all my thoughts are with the kidnapped, let only them return home alive. Eternal memory to the fallen.” A second post marked the one-month anniversary and expressed solidarity with the Israeli hostages and their families.

Sarkisyants told Index they were called to an urgent meeting the next day: “They showed me the two posts and said you should clarify your position. I said, I am from Israel and there was nothing in the post but facts: 1200 people were killed and 300 became hostages.”

The gallery asked Pomidor to sign a joint statement with Metamorphika condemning “the Zionist regime”, which they refused to do. “I’m Israeli. I was there,” said Sarkisyants. “What they proposed was impossible for me to do”

After several hours of discussion, Pomidor suggested a compromise of putting the exhibition solely in the name of Polina, but the gallery demanded the collective remove all work connected with Maria. At this point the exhibition was cancelled.

Pomidor posted on Instagram: “The problem came up because Maria is from Israel.”

This is something the gallery strongly denies. Metamorphika founder Simon Ballester told Index: “We were really compassionate with her story. But we asked her to say she had empathy for Palestinians and was against the war crimes.”

Ballester said the problem came when Sarkisyants expressed her support for the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza.

“It’s outrageous” the artist told Index. “I told them I do not support Netanyahu or his government. I feel they betrayed us. We expected them to protect us, but they didn’t. But I support my country Israel and its people.”

Since the cancellation of the show, Metamorphika claims it has received over a thousand “hate mails, insults and threats”. According to Ballester, he and his colleagues have been accused of being “Nazis, rapists, antisemites and misogynistic scumbags”.

Asked if he now regretted cancelling the show he said: “I think it was the right thing. I’m sorry it was the day of the show. That was really unfortunate.” He said the gallery operated on humanist principles and was striving for peace and equality.

The Pomidor exhibition will next travel to Montreal in Canada and the artists are in discussion with a gallery in London to host the show later in the year.

Are people in Israel getting the full story on Gaza?

Israel’s decision to seize video equipment from AP journalists last week may have been swiftly reversed but the overall direction of travel for media freedom in Israel is negative.

Journalists inside Gaza are of course paying the highest price (yesterday preliminary investigations by CPJ showed at least 107 journalists and media workers were among the more than 37,000 killed since the Israel-Gaza war began) and it feels odd to speak of equipment seizures when so many of those covering the war in the Strip have paid with their lives. But this is not to compare, merely to illuminate.

The past few days have provided ample evidence of what many within Israel have long feared – that the offensive in Gaza is not being reported on fully in Israel itself. On Tuesday a video went viral of an Israeli woman responding with outrage at the wide gulf between news on Sunday’s bombing of a refugee camp in Rafah within Israeli media compared to major international news outlets. Yesterday, in an interview with Canadian broadcaster CBC, press freedom director for the Union of Journalists in Israel, Anat Saragusti, spoke more broadly of the reporting discrepancies since 7 October:

“The world sees a completely different war from the Israeli audience. This is very disturbing.”

Saragusti added that part of this is because the population is still processing the horrors of 7 October and with that comes a degree of self-censorship from those within the media. The other reason, she said, is that the IDF provides much of the material that appears in Israeli media and this is subject to review by military censors. While the military has always exerted control (Israeli law requires journalists to submit any article dealing with “security issues” to the military censor for review prior to publication), this pressure has intensified since the war, as the magazine +972 showed. Since 2011 +972 have released an annual report looking at the scale of bans by the military censor. In their latest report, released last week and published on our site with permission, they highlighted how in 2023 more than 600 articles by Israeli media outlets were barred, which was the most since their tracking began.

In a visually arresting move, Israeli paper Haaretz published an article on Wednesday with blacked out words and sentences. Highlighting such redactions is incidentally against the law and will no doubt add to the government’s wrath at Haaretz (late last year they threatened the left-leaning outlet with sanctions over their Gaza war coverage).

The government’s attempts to control the media landscape was already a problem prior to 7 October. Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his fractious relationship with the press and has made some very personal attacks throughout his career, such as this one from 2016, while Shlomo Kahri, the current communications minister, last year expressed a desire to shut down the country’s public broadcaster Kan. This week it was also revealed by Haaretz that two years ago investigative reporter Gur Megiddo was blocked from reporting on how then chief of Mossad had allegedly threatened then ICC prosecutor (the story finally saw daylight on Tuesday). Megiddo said he’d been summoned to meet two officials and threatened. It was “explained that if I published the story I would suffer the consequences and get to know the interrogation rooms of the Israeli security authorities from the inside,” said Megiddo.

Switching to the present, it feels unconscionable that Israelis, for whom the war is a lived reality not just a news story, are being served a light version of its conduct.

In the case of AP, their equipment was confiscated on the premise that it violated a new media law, passed by Israeli parliament in April, which allows the state to shut down foreign media outlets it deems a security threat. It was under this law that Israel also raided and closed Al Jazeera’s offices earlier this month and banned the company’s websites and broadcasts in the country.

Countries have a habit of passing censorious legislation in wartime, the justification being that some media control is important to protect the military. The issue is that such legislation is typically vague, open to abuse by those in power, and doesn’t always come with an expiry date to protect peacetime rights.

“A country like Israel, used to living through intense periods of crisis, is particularly vulnerable to calls for legislation that claims to protect national security by limiting free expression. Populist politicians are often happy to exploit the “rally around the flag” effect,” Daniella Peled, managing editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told Index.

We voiced our concerns here in terms of Ukraine, which passed a media law within the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion with very broad implications, and we have concerns with Israel too. But as these examples show, our concerns are far wider than just one law and one incidence of confiscated equipment.

Israeli military censor bans highest number of articles in over a decade

The following article was first published by +972 Magazine, an independent, online, nonprofit magazine run by a group of Palestinian and Israeli journalists. Index on Censorship has reported on media freedom on both sides of the conflict since the 7 October attacks.

In 2023, the Israeli military censor barred the publication of 613 articles by media outlets in Israel, setting a new record for the period since +972 Magazine began collecting data in 2011. The censor also redacted parts of a further 2,703 articles, representing the highest figure since 2014. In all, the military prevented information from being made public an average of nine times a day.

This censorship data was provided by the military censor in response to a freedom of information request submitted by +972 Magazine and the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel.

Israeli law requires all journalists working inside Israel or for an Israeli publication to submit any article dealing with “security issues” to the military censor for review prior to publication, in line with the “emergency regulations” enacted following Israel’s founding, and which remain in place. These regulations allow the censor to fully or partially redact articles submitted to it, as well as those already published without its review. No other self-proclaimed “Western democracy” operates a similar institution.

To prevent arbitrary or political interference, the High Court ruled in 1989 that the censor is only permitted to intervene when there is a “near certainty that real damage will be caused to the security of the state” by an article’s publication. Nonetheless, the censor’s definition of “security issues” is very broad, detailed across six densely-filled pages of sub-topics concerning the army, intelligence agencies, arms deals, administrative detainees, aspects of Israel’s foreign affairs, and more. Early on in the war, the censor distributed more specific guidance regarding which kinds of news items must be submitted for review before publication, as revealed by The Intercept.

Submissions to the censor are made at the discretion of a publication’s editors, and media outlets are prohibited from revealing the censor’s interference — by marking where an article has been redacted, for instance — which leaves most of its activity in the shadows. The censor has the authority to indict journalists and fine, suspend, shut down, or even file criminal charges against media organizations. There are no known cases of such activity in recent years, however, and our request to the censor to specify its indictments filed in the past year was not answered.

For more background on the Israeli military censor and +972’s stance toward it, you can read the letter we published to our readers in 2016.

“Information pertaining to censorship is of particularly high importance, especially in times of emergency,” attorney Or Sadan of the Movement for Freedom of Information told +972. “During the war, we have [witnessed] the large gaps between Israeli and international media outlets, as well as between the traditional media and social media. Although it is obvious that there is information that cannot be disclosed to the public in times of emergency, it is appropriate for the public to be aware of the scope of information hidden from it.

“The significance of such censorship is clear: there is a great deal of information that journalists have seen fit to publish, recognizing its importance to the public, that the censor chose not to allow,” Sadan continued. “We hope and believe that the exposure of these numbers, year after year, will create some deterrence against the unchecked use of this tool.”

A wartime trend

Although the censor refused our request to provide a breakdown of its censorship figures by month, media outlet, and grounds for interference, it is clear that the reason for last year’s spike is the Hamas-led October 7 attack and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The only year for which there was a comparable level of silencing was 2014, when Israel launched what was then its largest assault on the Strip; that year, the censor intervened in more articles (3,122) but disqualified slightly fewer (597) than in 2023.

Last year, the censor’s representatives also made in-person visits to news studios, as has previously occurred during periods in which the government has declared a state of emergency, and continued monitoring the media and social networks for censorship violations. The censor declined to detail the extent of its involvement in television production and the number of retroactive interventions it made in regard to previously published news articles.

We do know, however, thanks to information revealed by The Seventh Eye, that despite the Israeli media’s proactive compliance — the number of submissions to the censor nearly doubled last year to 10,527 — the censor identified an additional 3,415 news items containing information that should have been submitted for review, and 414 that were published in violation of its orders.

Even before the war, the Israeli government had advanced a series of measures to undermine media independence. This led to Israel dropping 11 places in the 2023 annual World Press Freedom Index, followed by an additional four places in 2024 (it now sits in 101st place out of 180).

Since October, press freedom in Israel has further deteriorated, and the censor has found itself in the crosshairs of political battles. According to reports by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for a new law that would force the censor to ban news items more widely, and even suggested that journalists who publish reports on the security cabinet without the approval of the censor should be arrested. The chief military censor, Major General Kobi Mandelblit, also claimed that Netanyahu had pressured him to expand media censorship, even in cases that lacked any security justification.

In other cases, the Israeli government’s crackdown on media has skirted the censor and its activities entirely. Back in November, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi banned Al-Mayadeen from being broadcast on Israeli TV, and in April, the Knesset passed a law to ban the activities of foreign media outlets at the recommendation of security agencies. The government implemented the law earlier this month when the cabinet unanimously voted to shut down Al Jazeera in Israel, and the ban will now reportedly also be extended to the West Bank. The state claims that the Qatari channel poses a danger to state security and collaborates with Hamas, which the channel rejects.

The decision will not affect Al Jazeera’s operations outside of Israel, nor will it prevent interviews with Israelis via Zoom (full disclosure: this writer sometimes interviews with Al Jazeera via Zoom), and Israelis can still access the channel via VPN and satellite dishes. But Al Jazeera journalists will no longer be able to report from inside Israel, which will reduce the channel’s ability to highlight Israeli voices in its coverage.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Al Jazeera petitioned the High Court against the decision, and the Journalists’ Union also issued a statement against the government’s decision (full disclosure: this writer is a member of the union’s board).

Despite these various attacks on the media, the most significant threats posed by the Israeli government and military, and especially during the war, are those faced by Palestinians journalists. Figures for the number of Palestinian journalists in Gaza killed by Israeli attacks since October 7 range from 100 (according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists) to more than 130 (according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate). Four Israeli journalists were killed in the October 7 attacks.

The heightened government interference in Israeli media does not absolve the mainstream press of its failure to report on the army’s campaign of destruction in Gaza. The military censor does not prevent Israeli publications from describing the war’s consequences for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, or from featuring the work of Palestinian reporters inside the Strip. The choice to deny the Israeli public the images, voices, and stories of hundreds of thousands of bereaved families, orphans, wounded, homeless, and starving people is one that Israeli journalists make themselves.

This article was previously published by +972 here.

Israel’s civil and human rights are under siege

Almost six months to the day since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli government made a decision to shutter the Al Jazeera bureau in Jerusalem. The Knesset vote was an overwhelming 71-10. “The ability of the Communications Minister to shutter press for political motivation is a complete and utter threat to democracy in Israel,” said Noa Sattath, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel’s leading human and civil rights organisation. “We want a journalist to be thinking about the truth, not about what a minister is thinking about them—this is a chilling effect. “

In addition to the attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the new law also effectively precludes the court from intervening in decisions regarding the closure of media outlets. In addition to closing Al Jazeera’s offices, the law allows removing its website and confiscating the device used to deliver its content. Al Jazeera, termed a “propaganda machine” not a news organisation by many in the Israeli government, was an easy target perhaps, especially during wartime, but it is especially in wartime that a democracy’s fortitude is tested.

In a new sixth-month survey of the impact of the war on human and civil rights in Israel, ACRI makes these points: “Even before the terrorist attack Hamas perpetrated on 7 October, and before the war broke out, Israeli democracy was facing severe threats. Combined together, laws designed to take over the judicial system [what Prime Minister and his government called ‘judicial reform’, but what opponents called a ‘judicial coup’ attempt] and a slew of other initiatives in different areas crystallised to produce a judicial overhaul, as part of which the government sought to undermine the pillars of democracy and reduce human rights protections. Some initiatives to take over the judicial system have been put on hold since the war began, partly because this was put forward as a condition for expanding the government [by member parties]. Other initiatives that threaten democracy have also been suspended.”

Yet, there are enough new curbs and potential curbs on human and civil rights to warrant a 14-page document from ACRI. Sattath, the ACRI director, explains: “The government has pushed forward with existing trends such as targeting Arab society, restricting freedom of movement, increasing the prevalence of firearms in public spaces, and accelerating the annexation of the West Bank. Given the general climate in a time of war, these efforts are met with less resistance. In other fields, such as prisoners’ rights, the state of human rights has taken a significant turn for the worse, while the public remains entirely indifferent. Human rights violations are often carried out via emergency regulations (Hebrew), an undemocratic tool that allows the government to enact laws, seriously violating the principle of separation of powers.”

In addition to the actual censoring of media, the mainstream media has self-censored in Israel, aware of—and even setting—the tone among the public. Nightly newscasts cover soldiers in the field, the hostages, and other security concerns but rarely focus on the situation for Palestinians, including the humanitarian concerns in Gaza.

Additionally, people have been detained by the police for a “like” on social media after the Ministry of Justice removed the State Prosecutor’s oversight on charges for offences of freedom of expression during the war, so that police don’t need approval before investigating such cases. Police were directed to detain people for social media posts until the proceedings’ end and prosecute them even for a single publication. This change led to a surge in arrests of Arab citizens regarding social media posts; arresting without cause.

Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of widespread hate speech online incriminating Jewish social media spots promoting hate against Arabs, but enforcement disproportionately targets Arab citizens and residents.

By November, there were 269 investigation cases for incitement and support for terrorism, resulting in 86 expedited indictments for incitement to violence and terrorism. Suspects faced prolonged detention and even remand until trial, a departure from due process.

Additionally, there are significant violations of policing of peaceful demonstrators, along with unlawful detentions of protesters and unauthorised visits to the houses of suspected protest organisers by the police. The police (which is federalised in Israel), led by far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir, seem to be pre-imagining what steps he anticipates for them and taking them–all with no retribution so far.

Security prisoners in Israeli prisons have faced much worse, with protocols, including lawyers’ visits, upended. Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of guns in the streets with a free-for-all dispensation by Ben Gvir’s office to create private militias both inside Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where actions by Jewish settlers against Palestinian residents have multiplied.

These are just a few key examples of what Israelis are facing. Even when the war ends and when the current government falls, much of the backtracking in Israeli society will be hard to reverse.